For new Christians, prayer can be a bit mysterious. As you spend time around other Christians, it becomes clear pretty quickly that it’s an essential practice for believers. You may hear a lot about the power of prayer or its purpose, but many people don’t feel they get adequate instruction on how to pray. They’re not sure what to do, and more importantly, they’re not sure what to expect.
So let’s answer some questions that new believers commonly ask about prayer.
What is prayer?
It’s easy to define prayer as simply “talking to God.” And on a very functional level, that’s exactly what it is. But if we leave it at that, we can often miss out on its actual significance. The point of prayer isn’t simply talking at God, but talking to God.
The difference is mainly about what we bring to the act of prayer. We’re not just bringing God a list of requests or a sanitized, pious version of ourselves; we bring our whole and vulnerable selves to prayer.
A good model for the difference can be found throughout the Psalms. The Psalmists don’t simply worship and pray what they assume God wants to hear. Instead, they communicate with God about the things that matter to them—sometimes in surprising ways. Check out these examples:
Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:5)
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1–2)
As you can see from these examples, coming to the Lord in prayer is about bringing our honest selves before Him. He knows what’s in our hearts and isn’t shocked by it. Sometimes we need to air our frustrations, disappointments and doubts so the Spirit can move us back to a place of trust and hope. You see this over and over in the Psalms as the psalmists remind themselves to turn their hearts to the Lord.
Asking God to move on our behalf is an integral part of prayer. But if we simply come to God to rattle off a list of requests, it can dramatically influence how we think about prayer. When prayer is reduced to simple intercession, we start hyper-focusing on the question, “does prayer work?” And that question is based on whether or not we feel God has adequately addressed our list of requests.
When we see prayer as a way to connect and commune with God, we begin to see the effectiveness of prayer in terms of our closeness to the Lord.
How should you pray?
When we see prayer through the lens of a relationship, it makes sense that there are many ways to pray. It’s kind of like maintaining our relationship with a close friend. There are many ways that we approach the relationship and stay connected. Sometimes we have heartfelt face-to-face conversations, sometimes we use correspondence, and sometimes we get together in groups. The interactions with our close friends can occasionally be serious, funny, or focused and formal.
In Luke’s gospel, the disciples came to Jesus for direction on how to pray.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:1–4)
This is a shorter version of the Lord’s prayer from Matthew’s gospel that many of us are familiar with.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’” (Matthew 6:9–13)
The Lord’s lessons in prayer here offer an important template for when you’re unsure how to pray.
1. Worshipfully come before your Father
When coming before God, it’s important to remember that we’re firm in our relationship with God. This prepares us to come before God just like we’re instructed to by the writer of Hebrews:
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
2. Put God’s kingdom first
Jesus’ message was always about the glorious appearance of God’s kingdom. And when Jesus instructs His disciples to pray, He begins with the kingdom. This helps us to put God’s priorities first. What needs to happen around you (and inside you) for God’s kingdom to advance?
3. Make time for intercession
Requesting the Lord’s help is a critical part of prayer. The Lord wants us to ask for help in our lives and the lives of people around us.
4. Confession and forgiveness
We want to ensure that our relationship with God is on the right footing, which means asking forgiveness for the sins that alienate us from God. We also want to do our best to maintain our relationship with others (because that’s another way we maintain our relationship with God). So we pray for those with whom we need to mend fences—particularly from the vantage point of our personal responsibility.
5. Pray for God’s protection
Jesus closes this prayer by asking the Lord to deliver us from evil and lead us away from temptation. It’s essential to recognize that spiritual warfare is real, and we can’t always identify when it’s occurring. So we need the Lord working on our behalf, protecting us from the devil’s schemes.
Using the Lord’s prayer as a template is a great way to start—especially when we consider that this is the template that Jesus gave us. By memorizing the Lord’s prayer, we can remember the vital elements of prayer.
Does posture matter when I pray?
For many in the Western world, the classical image of prayer is hands clasped together and heads bowed, or you might even imagine a person kneeling beside their bed. In other parts of the world, prayer is traditionally done with hands and faces lifted skyward.
You don’t have to assume a specific posture when you pray, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. The Lord doesn’t particularly care if your hands are together, your head is bowed or even if your eyes are closed, but you still want to be focused and attentive. So any posture that puts you in the right frame of mind and helps you stay alert is the proper posture for prayer.
The last thing you want is to assume that body posture doesn’t matter and then fall asleep trying to pray with your head on the pillow. Instead, find ways that make prayer feel special and keep you dialed in, including going for prayer walks.
Is there a right time to pray?
People have firm opinions when it comes to the right time for prayer. Some people pray in the morning and feel really strongly about meeting with God first thing in the morning. They probably have Bible verses that would agree:
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly. (Psalm 5:3, emphasis added)
My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn. (Psalm 57:7–8, emphasis added)
The gospel writers also told us that Jesus prayed in the morning:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (Mark 1:35).
The truth is that morning was one of the times for prayer, but most of the faithful were accustomed to praying three times a day.
I call with all my heart; answer me, Lord,
and I will obey your decrees.
I call out to you; save me
and I will keep your statutes.
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I have put my hope in your word.
My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
that I may meditate on your promises. (Psalm 119:145–148, emphasis added)
It is good to praise the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night (Psalm 92:1–2, emphasis added)
We also see Jesus praying through the night:
After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone (Matthew 14:23, emphasis added)
The time of day you pray isn’t as important as the consistency of prayer. Build a schedule that makes the most sense to you, and stick to it!
How long should I pray?
When people decide to be more disciplined about prayer, they tend to set goals that are way too lofty. Remember, 10 minutes of daily prayer is infinitely better than zero minutes. So develop a reachable plan.
Another thing to consider is establishing a time frame. Telling yourself that you will spend ten minutes a day praying for the next six months makes it doable. When that period is up, you can decide what changes should be made. Maybe you’ll add another 10 minutes for the next six months.
Pretty soon, you’ll discover that talking to God is just a regular part of your lifestyle.
Pray with and for Jesus Film Project!
Jesus Film Project’s goal for people all over the world to hear the story of Jesus in their own heart language relies on the faithful prayers of many Christians. If you’d like to support us in prayer, please visit the Jesus Film Project prayer page!
For more prayer resources, check out the following posts: